It was 39 years ago, on the 12th March 1984, that The National Union of Mineworkers President, Arthur Scargill made the series of unofficial strikes that had been running for weeks an official National strike across the whole country. The struggle soon became personified by Arthur Scargill, who was said to be fighting to prevent pit closures, and Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher who was thought to have wanted to use dispute to reduce the power of trade unions.
As I look back it’s the oddest things that stick out in my memory. Although the main protagonists Scargill and Thatcher would have been on the news nightly the images that are seared into my brain are from Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show. The producers that must have been delighted to have 2 such strong faces and voices to work with.
At the time I had just returned from London after a failed attempt to be a musician and was working as a Radio producer on the AM programme at BBC Radio Wales. Every morning I would leave Swansea for the studios in Llandaff. Each day brought new twists and turns and with the South Wales coalfield on strike our programme was right at the heart of things. We would hear the stories of hardship and communities being split as some miners decided to break the picket and go back to work.
I would get the chance to speak candidly to the South Wales leaders about their struggles to remain on message and upbeat as they saw the people and places they loved slowly start to disintegrate.
For me, the most lingering memory I have is the Lorry convoys on the M4. As the strike started to bite coal supplies started to dwindle. If nothing was done about it the Steel works would have to close. It was decided to run convoys of trucks, sometimes well over 100 at a time, with a police escort of cars and motorcycles. The lorries themselves looked more military than commercial. Most had grills fitted to their windscreens in case they were attacked on route.
These convoys led to further rifts in communities. Many of the drivers were ex- miners. They lived in the communities which were striking. In many cases the haulage companies had to decide if they would join the convoy or would they go bust. There was so much pain, heartache and in some areas the sides that were chosen back in 1984 and 1985 still divide communities.
In the darkest of times often shine the brightest lights. It was amazing the way the mining communities themselves worked together to keep families alive. I remember putting money into tins and buckets as we all tried our best to do what we could. As always, in circumstances like these, sympathetic musicians and artists staged concerts to raise awareness and funds.
And then there was the LGSM, (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners), a group of gay activists from London who decided to fundraise for mining communities in South Wales. At the time I was working on a daily morning news programme on BBC Radio Wales and surprisingly I really can’t remember covering this story at the time or even hearing about it. I’ve often asked myself why.
I suppose the thing we have to remember is that the world was a very different place in 1984. The coalfields were very masculine. Even 15 years later when I started playing the clubs of the old coal mining valleys we would often find men only bars. Being gay at that time, or even associated with people who were thought to be gay, was a decision that could affect work opportunities, social invitations and could break up families.
Another reason I am so surprised that I didn’t hear the story at the time is because one of my colleagues at the BBC was the first openly gay man that I can say I knew as a friend. He was outrageous, funny often shocking but one of the kindest people I knew. If he wasn’t pushing to cover the story then it really must have been a hidden tale.
There was also the shadow of the new plague AIDS. It was the subject of terrifying TV adverts and if you read many papers the blame was laid squarely on the Gay community.
I had seen the film PRIDE when it was first released in 2014. The film tells the story of LGSM who identify the way miners were being treated during the strike with the way they had been treated for years. They raise money with concerts and bucket collections but when they arrive in Wales they are greeted by some in the community with suspicion and in some cases fear. In the film it’s wonderful to see one of the young miners wives starts to find a voice through the strike. In real life that woman, Sian James, went on to go to university and became Member of Parliament for Swansea East.
It was only a few weeks ago I was flicking through the channels and saw that PRIDE was back on. I watched it again and as usual cried when the moments of solidarity show that people have much more in common than divides them. Imagine my surprise when out of the blue Sian James rang me. ‘I’ve just been watching your film again’ was my opening line.
Visiting the Counselling Centre with Debbie Land and Andy Nicholas
Sian explained that the Swansea Rainbow Counselling Centre had invited us to visit their offices. I have to say its always been hard to say no to anything that Sian suggests. Not really knowing what to expect I popped along. Debbie Lane and her team gave me the warmest welcome and explained the work they do counselling young people and families through some of their toughest moments. The problem was they had a shortfall in their funding. If they couldn’t raise money and fast the service might be forced to close its doors.
I left with a thank you card, a potted plant and lots of questions about what I could do to help. Then Sian rang again. She told me that Jonathan Blake, another of the real life stars from the film PRIDE had offered to come to Swansea for an evening to support the centre. Would I interview Jonathan about his life and the film?
In the film Jonathan is played by the actor Dominic West and one of the famous scenes from the film shows Jonathan teaching some of the miners how and why to dance. Even more remarkable is that Jonathan was one of the first to have been diagnosed with HIV, a death sentence for so many of his friends. Miraculously he is still going strong.
I said yes but thought we needed some music and so invited the wonderful Alt Country singer Kaysha Louvain. She said yes by return of email.
This is the first in a series of fundraisers for Swansea Rainbow Counselling Service so please keep your eyes open for future events.
I’d love to see you next Saturday at the Llewelyn Hall in the YMCA for a night of great chat and music. As well as having a good time you’ll also be helping keep the Counselling service alive.